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February 2023

Twelve Minutes

Platform(s): Android, Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, iOS
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Luis Antonio
Release Date: Aug. 19, 2021

About Andreas Salmen

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PC Review - 'Twelve Minutes'

by Andreas Salmen on Aug. 20, 2021 @ 11:00 p.m. PDT

Twelve Minutes is an interactive narrative that blends the dream-like tension of The Shining with the claustrophobia of Read Window and the fragmented structure of Memento.

From the moment it was announced, Twelve Minutes has piqued my interest: a time loop comparable to "Groundhog Day," a mysterious policeman, and a murder accusation intertwine into a flurry of trial and error as our protagonist tries to figure out how everything connects — and how to escape unscathed. We've spent the last few days looping through the game on PC, and we came out more impressed than dizzy, no matter how often we had to return to square one.

At its heart, Twelve Minutes is a point-and-click adventure game in the most classical sense. The best way to describe the game is somewhere between interactive adventure and small-scale theater production. The game opens with the sound of an orchestra tuning up, and from an isometric perspective, you see the action unfold with a limited cast of characters in a very small and static space, putting you in the seat of the quiet observer. The story takes place in a single apartment for almost its entire runtime, and it employs three main characters: the protagonist, his wife, and a mysterious intruder. What initially begins as a normal afternoon quickly spirals out of control.

Our first interactions are innocent enough. We arrive home to a loving wife who has prepared dessert for "a special occasion." Playing along, we learn of her pregnancy and celebrate the occasion with a loving embrace and dance to the tune of the radio — until a banging at the door causes the wholesome facade to crumble. A strange man forces himself into the flat, proclaiming to be with the police and arresting the wife for an apparent murder that occurred years ago. Things don't add up and, eventually, violence ensues. Before we know what happened, we're back at the beginning. There's dessert, there's the loving wife, the world is whole again for a few minutes … until a knocking at the door starts the terror anew with no apparent way out.

This is the loop.

The loop is 12 minutes if you get to the end, but chances are that your first loops through the game will be much shorter. It's an interesting premise that is executed well, and everything happens organically. If uninterrupted, the wife and intruder behave in the same way for every loop, so it's up to us to disrupt the meticulously planned 12 minutes and gather as much information as we can. Chances are that even if you reach the end credits, you may not know everything there is to know.

Interacting with the environment is straightforward. As in any adventure game, the protagonist can walk around the apartment and interact with objects via mouse click. Objects can be picked up and combined with other items or other objects in your flat via simple drag-and-drop motions, but inventory puzzles aren't the only things you'll solve. Your priorities throughout the game will shift as you gain new insights. What happens if I'm standing in another room when the man arrives? What happens if we skip dessert? What happens if I spoil my wife's baby surprise altogether to annoy her? What if we get in a fight? In a way, Twelve Minutes feels like the adventure equivalent to a roguelike: running through the same game over and over again, yet still progressing in minor or major ways, depending on how successful you are each time.

Any information you collect can be used in the next loop, but there aren't clear-cut solutions all the time. A piece of information may only be useful in certain situations, so getting information is not always the first and last step to advance the story. That adds an appreciated complexity and depth to its puzzles. Initially, the small apartment and limited number of interactable objects make it seem like you don't have many choices to experiment with, but the story and the ways to uncover more pieces of the story take several twists and turns that had me constantly engaged and occasionally enraged.

I often complain about difficulty, especially in story-driven adventure titles, but Twelve Minutes made me eat my words. At some point in the game, I got stuck (admittedly my fault), and it genuinely frustrated me, but I didn't want to give in. Here was an elaborate puzzle box of an apartment in front of my eyes, and I knew what I had to do, but I couldn't grasp it. I was scrambling for a solution. I'd go as far as to say that it brought me closer to the protagonist, equally losing his mind as we were thrown back to the beginning again and again, often with very little new information to go on. By the time it clicked, I was hooked and wanted to figure out what was going on and where it would end. Even if you reach an ending and watch the credits roll, chances are that you have more to discover. The conclusion and the way I got there, even though it was sometimes frustrating, was worth it.

This may be a surprise, but Twelve Minutes isn't as short of a gameplay experience as expected. I spent well over six hours on my very first playthrough and added another two on top for a second (faster) run. Depending on how quickly you're able to unravel the mystery, you may spend more or less time, but it's a decent length for a $20 adventure title of some complexity.

The limited scope impacts the experience in other, minor ways. The voice acting is thoroughly excellent, with performances by Willem Dafoe, James McAvoy and Daisy Ridley being consistently great throughout the adventure. You'll eventually get fed up with certain lines, since you have to live through the same situations several times by design. Most lines can be skipped (while moving forward) if you want to keep what's left of your sanity, but that can sometimes result in manically clicking through a large portion of a given run when not making much headway.

The game also provides mechanics to forward time or to prematurely restart the loop during most of the game. However, there are moments in the second part of the loop that did not always provide an easy way out if I messed up. There were several times when I timed actions incorrectly and went through events that I'd already seen before, with no chance of new information and a new outcome — but it's also without a quick way to reliably opt-out and return to the beginning. These moments aren't very long, but they test my patience.

There are also situations where I felt that I should have made headway by convincing a character to do something or expecting them to react in a certain way — but then they acted out of character and the opposite happened. These moments can cause further frustration, but it didn't occur very often, and they usually existed due to minor clues that I needed to unlock but wasn't aware of yet.

The premise, gameplay execution, and voice acting are incredibly well executed, but Twelve Minutes is the product of a rather small development team, which is noticeable. Animations are sometimes excellent, but they don't always play smoothly. Characters noticeably jump and warp into position for a specific animation or awkwardly move at weird angles, which initially felt immersion-breaking. The very low-poly character models and faces are a stark contrast to the otherwise beautifully rendered apartment and its lighting effects. The lighting creates some very moody scenes and can add to the suspense as you eventually see the shadow of two legs splitting the light that passes under a door crack moments before the door is violently kicked in.

The more I played Twelve Minutes, the less relevant these minor hiccups became. Between the small space to explore and the few items to interact with, Twelve Minutes feels like a very small and toned-down experience, which seems only natural given the small scope for an indie title. It would be easy to brush it off as a simple experience, but that would mean not seeing the forest for the trees. The way characters can react to certain interactions done at certain times or in certain moments, the way that several loops can play out differently from one another — it combines to create an incredibly immersive and captivating thriller that is far more than the sum of its parts.

That praise extends to its sound design as well. The banging at the door and other environmental sounds sound good and are also used to great effect to alert you of your current position within the loop. By the second or third run, you'll have learned to interpret a sequence of sounds to know that the intruder is about to be at your door before he even says a word or knocks. It can also alert you to clues that are vital for progression if you pay attention. The orchestral soundtrack does the rest, adding suspense at just the right moments but giving way to character interactions and quieter passages when needed. It just all plays very well together to build a cohesive experience across audio, gameplay and music.

Twelve Minutes had me on a rollercoaster ride from start to finish. I started being let down by the game seeming too simple in premise. Then I got frustrated because I got stuck uncovering its hidden complexities. Finally, I can't and don't want to put it down until I'd turned everything over thrice. It executes the time loop mechanic meticulously, its story is twisting and turning constantly, and the excellent voice cast, environmental art, and music work together to create a new type of adventure game. It is not perfect, and you see some cut corners, but what it sacrifices, it makes up for with a satisfying payoff as you delve deeper into its time loop to unravel the mystery at the core.

Score: 9.0/10

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